Medical Baloney Detector 2

Part 2 in our continuing series: Medical Baloney Detector.

How do we sort through claims that are true and too good to be true? Here I’ll provide some key features of each and how to tell the difference.

Example baloney claim: “Drug/Treatment X has been successful in the treatment of asthma, chronic back pain, stroke, cardiac arrhythmia, fibromyalgia, insomnia, etc.”

This is the “cure-all” claim. Here’s a real life example. The company claims to help with many symptoms that are completely unrelated. In reality, there is rarely if ever one single drug or treatment that is effective for a multitude of ailments. In reality, what claims like this typically indicate is an attempt to sell their bogus product to as many people as possible. Casting a wide net ensures that more people will say “I have that” and try the drug/treatment.

For example, there are no physiological mechanisms similar between asthma and chronic back pain — well, they can possibly occur in the same body but that’s not exactly physiologically specific. There is no single mechanism of drug action that can solve both problems. One is caused by bronchial constriction and allergies; the other is caused by muscle stiffness, arthritis, disk pathologies, etc. It is not possible for such diverse ailments to be cured by the same treatment and yet I hear similar claims from advertisements all the time.

More reasonable version of this claim: “Drug/Treatment X has been successful in treatment of blood pressure, stroke, cardiac arrhythmia, and hypertension.”

These are all related conditions (cardiovascular system). The claim could still be false, but it is much more reasonable that a drug/treatment helps very similar ailments than a huge list of completely unrelated ailments. A good way to tell if a claim is on the level is if they have willingly limited their claims to relevant disorders and don’t make sweeping, generalized assumptions. A reasonable claim will include caveats such as side-effects, appropriate candidates to try the drug/treatment, and possibly even alternatives that may work better depending on the patient/consumer’s situation.

Still, nothing is better than a search on a reputable medical database such as PubMed or the Cochrane library. But that literature can be hard for most people to sift through. The best thing to do is ask several pharmacists and/or your family doctor. When you ask, be sure to ask what evidence they have to support what they are saying (this may take finesse in wording to avoid offending certain people). The worst place to look is the internet, because for every reputable web page there are 20 crank ones. If the website is trying to sell you something, definitely take the information with a grain of salt — the size of a Buick.

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